Unpopular Opinion: I Like Being the Toy Lady

“I have a special friend that will come bring you some toys” I overhear the nurse say to her patient as I’m gowning up to enter the room on contact precautions to introduce myself and child life services.

I roll my eyes as she makes her way out of the room and lets me know that her “buddy” could really use some trucks to play with.

“I wish I could play with trucks and Barbie dolls all day.” 

“Must be fun to come to work every day and just play.” 

Some days these comments strike a nerve with me. I am so much more than “a special friend that brings toys” to children. That’s what volunteers are for. The play that the multidisciplinary team sees me do goes so much deeper than what they know.

While some days being the “Toy Lady” is all I feel like I’m doing on the pediatric unit – constantly trying to normalize the hospital experience by running back and forth to the playroom, movie binders, and storage room for additional items to help our patients feel more at home with the toys and activities they like to play with – I do know that, deep down, I really like being known as the Toy Lady.

Being the Toy Lady allows me to build rapport with the patients and families

It gives me that one-on-one interaction where I get to sit down and learn a little bit about them. Favorite movie, TV shows, colors and toys are all valuable information for a child life specialist to know about their patients in order to help normalize but also can come in handy when an impromptu procedure happens.

*phone rings*

“Hey Jessica, the little boy in room 4 has to get his IV restarted. Are you able to help?”

Sure thing! I know that his parents are at the bedside and very supportive since they joined in during our conversation as I introduced myself and services and got him a few of his favorite toys/movies to have at the bedside. He’s the biggest Lego fan in the world and loves the color blue.

Knowing these facts about him allows me to personalize my interventions making them even more significant as I’m a step ahead of the game.

I provide procedural preparation for his IV start by showing him my blue rubber band (his favorite color) that will give his arm a tight little hug. He chooses to play my Lego Junior racing game on my iPad as his distraction and is sitting in a comfort position on his mom’s lap. This family trusts me because I’ve already spent a portion of my day building that rapport and meeting their needs.

Being the Toy Lady also gives me the opportunity to be a constant in our long-term and chronic patients’ hospitalizations

For our long-term patients, they start to know what days I work. They know that at the very least, I’ll check in and say hi. But typically, I try really hard to do at least one thing with them. Even if that’s a quick five-minute card game; it’s an interaction and a moment that they know someone saw them as more than their medical diagnosis and tried to meet their desire for play and interaction.

For our chronic patients, I get the “JESSICA!” or the “Hey! I know you!” as I enter their room.

Be still my heart.

They know that it sucks that they’re back in the hospital for who-knows-how-long but they do know that the Toy Lady will come by to visit them with hopefully something fun to get their mind off the reason they’re here in the first place.

Being the Toy Lady also gives me an excuse to educate staff with my actions

When someone says “Wow, that must be fun to play all day,” and then walks in as I’m doing procedural preparation with the child’s teddy bear and explaining the IV in developmentally appropriate terms, usually something shifts in their perception of me and my role.

The best way that I educate staff on the unit is with my actions. So, while that may be cheerily saying “absolutely” when she asks me to get her “buddy” some trucks, it may also be when I’m in the room with her patients doing procedural preparation, medical play or self-expression activities.

Obviously, sometimes being referred to as “Toy Lady” or “Fun Friend” hurts when it’s not been a fun day or you’ve done back-to-back bereavements.

Most days though, I like being the Toy Lady.

Next time you’re called the Toy Lady or Fun Friend, I challenge you to think about all of the ways you can use this opportunity to your advantage- whether that be to build a better, trusting relationship with a patient or family or educate your staff. Normalization through play is so important and we can’t do that play without a Toy Lady!

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